You just received an email that alarmed, amused or inspired you. You immediately hit forward and enter the email addresses of everybody you know and hit send, right? No. Please. Think first.

If this email is a chain letter of some sort, sending it out probably violates the acceptable use policy of your ISP or email provider. Is it worth losing your account? Think of that if nothing else.

If it’s one of those "inspirational" pieces—come on, is it really that good? And are the people to whom you’re sending it really interested in it? Honestly, most of that stuff is poorly written, overly sentimental nonsense (sometimes referred to as "glurge"). I certainly don’t need to see more of it. I know how to subscribe to mailing lists of inspirational quotes, scriptures of various faiths, and so on if I actually feel a need for such things in my email. I actually find some of those pieces highly offensive, and the people who send them know perfectly well that I don’t share their beliefs – they just forward the messages to everyone in their address books regardless of whether that person does share their beliefs or not.

If it’s a crime warning, it’s probably a hoax. I haven’t seen any that weren’t hoaxes. If it’s one of the many pieces about how women should protect themselves against assault, I know I’ve seen them all at least a dozen times, and don’t need to read any of them again. Everybody has heard those tips many times, and some of them are just wrong anyway.

If it’s a virus warning, read No Thanks, We’re Already Alert and follow the guidelines there.

If it’s about a health issue, again – it might well be a hoax, or contain misinformation. Most that I’ve seen do. If you haven’t verified that it comes from a reputable, professional source, delete it.

If it’s a political alert, again—does everyone to whom you’re sending it share your political views? And if they want to see articles about Ashcroft or endangered species or prayer in schools, don’t you think they’ll just subscribe to mailing lists that exist to send out such alerts? And again, some of those messages are hoaxes, outdated, or just plain useless.

If it’s a message claiming that you’ll get something for free just for sending out emails, it’s nonsense.

The most widespread virus on the internet is the gullibility virus – okay, so it’s more of a meme. In any case, it’s a major nuisance, and sucks up ridiculous amounts of time and energy due to people forwarding nonsense emails or worrying about virus hoaxes. Those of us who are on many mailing lists or have many correspondents end up seeing these stupid things umpteen times, and they get more annoying every time they appear in our inboxes. Please, stop. Now. Before you forward anything please ask yourself these questions:

  1. How sure am I that this is true? Have I verified it with a reliable source? (Hearing about it on some radio or television show does not count.) Go to some authority that you absolutely know to be trustworthy and relevant to the subject at hand. If it’s a medical alert sort of thing, check it through a medical professional or the web site for the American Medical Association or a similar organization.
  2. Who wrote this thing? If it’s been forwarded multiple times, it’s highly unlikely that it’s true.
  3. Would you believe this information if you saw it written on a bathroom wall? Forwarded emails have the same level of credibility.
  4. There are certain characteristics shared among almost all email hoaxes. Excessive use of exclamation marks and deliberately alarming language are just a few of them.
  5. The fact that something has been stated on a web site instead of in an email does not make it any more likely to be true. I could put up a web site in just a couple of minutes that stated, in very authoritative language, that spammers have caused the hole in the ozone layer. Check the sources.
  6. I don’t care if someone else said he checked it out—you check it out. I don’t care if it’s from your mother, unless you know for a fact that it’s a story coming from her personal, first-hand experience. I get urban legends from my relatives all the time, and that doesn’t make me any more likely to believe them.

At the very least, take a minute and check with these sites that specialize in debunking hoaxes and urban legends:

Even if it is true, most people who have been online long are likely to have seen it many times. They aren’t relying on you for the news. You are not a wire service.

Despite the chain letter that’s being forwarded all over the net right now that says otherwise, chain letters and other mass forwarded emails don’t make anyone feel loved. If you want someone to know that you’re thinking about him, pick up the phone and call him, or send her a personal email, or snail mail a card or letter. But don’t forward an email!

Originally published February 6, 2001